Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Most Seditious Lot: The Militant-Separatist Press 1896-1916

In this, the second of a three-part series on the radical press in Ireland in the run-up to the 1916 revolution, the focus is on the militant-separatist, or advanced-nationalist press.

The Irish separatist movement was by no means an homogeneous one. It contained conservative and progressive wings, and different shades in between. The conservatives, Arthur Griffith being an example, were prepared for independence, but under a dual monarchy with the English King at the head, much like the position at the time of Grattan’s Parliament (pre-Act of Union) in 1782. They were not republicans calling for Enlightenment republican principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and they were disinclined to encourage militant action to achieve independence, whatever they might claim when standing on political platforms. The radical wing, on the other hand, drew their inspiration from a revolutionary lineage stretching back through the Fenians, and the Young Irelanders, to Wolfe Tone and the republican United Irish movement in the 1790s.

What drew these groups together were a disillusionment among the conservatives with the Home Rule policy of the Irish Parliamentary Party particularly after Parnell’s fall from grace and his death, and the opportunities which presented themselves in the 1890s and thereafter. Many among them were involved in the literary societies, the Gaelic League, and even the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), of which even Arthur Griffith was a member at one stage. It was, though, the commemorations of the centenary of the 1798 Rising which created the conditions for a coalition between the conservatives and the radicals. According to historian Kevin Whelan ‘It was the I.R.B. who organised the first structured Bodenstown commemoration in 1891, and by the middle of the decade crowds of up to 5,000 gathered there each June on the Sunday closest to Tone’s birthdate. In 1898 a bust of Tone was placed on the grave by John O’Leary, already an iconic figure.’

Various organisations and committees were set up in the years immediately prior to the centenary in 1898. Again, it was often at the instigation of the IRB, usually acting in the background. Local ‘98 Centennial Clubs were set up, including many in Dublin, which were used to educate their members in the history of the 1798 Rising, and also to illustrate the political linkages between that period and present circumstances. The clubs were named after the patriots of 1798, and would usually hold pilgrimages around the sites associated with their particular hero, often ending up at his grave. The membership of the clubs was mainly male and working class. The Dublin socialists, with James Connolly at the head, named their club the ‘Rank and File ‘98 Club’.

This effort at remembrance was not, though, the preserve of men. The Irishwomen’s Centenary Union organised the decoration of neglected graves, not just of the 1798 heroes, but of other patriots as well. They also created a cottage industry producing home-made goods around the theme of the 1798 Rising.

Throughout the country a rising tide of fervor saw the erection of monuments to the patriots of ‘98. Dedication ceremonies for monuments or foundation stones drew huge crowds. It was obvious that the centenary had caught the imagination of the people and there was a scramble for control of the Centenary Committee between the IRB and the constitutional politicians which eventually led to a compromise solution, but not without considerable acrimony. The proposal, put forward by Dublin socialist E.R.Stewart on behalf of the socialist-republican Rank and File ‘98 Club, that membership of the Committee should be restricted to those who accepted the political principles of the United Irishmen, was rejected. For a period, the Irish people were treated to the sight and sound of members of the conservative Irish Parliamentary Party posturing as physical force men! Addressing a gathering in his native Mayo, the arch-conservative constitutional politician John Dillon said – ‘We will, by every constitutional and physical means, follow in the footsteps of the gallant men of 1798, until Ireland shakes off the bonds of slavery, and her sons make her a Nation’. Pure humbug, of course.

The dedication of the foundation stone for a monument to Wolfe Tone at the Stephen’s Green end of Grafton Street, right in the Unionist heart of Dublin, was the high point of the Centennial. Quarried from Cave Hill outside Belfast where Tone and the United Irishmen had, in 1795, pledged themselves to their revolutionary cause, the huge stone was brought to Dublin by train, lay in state as would an eminent corpse for two days, before being transported in a ‘funeral’ procession around all of the places in the city connected with the Risings of 1798 and 1803 on its way to the prepared site. Dublin had shut down for the day, and the huge procession took three hours to cover the three-mile route. The crowd was estimated to number 100,000.

Arthur Griffith wrote that the ’98 commemoration was “the beginning of all modern efforts towards a return to ideals of independence”. A journalist of considerable ability, he launched his own newspaper, the United Irishman, in 1899. The paper became a vehicle for putting Griffith’s ideas on passive resistance and obstructionism into the public arena, and also his stance against recruitment by the British for the Boer War. He also pushed for the development of Irish manufacture, agriculture and commerce in general, ring-fenced by tariffs. This was the ‘Sinn Féin’, or ‘Ourselves’ policy. He founded Cumann na nGaedheal in 1900, which merged with the Dungannon Clubs, Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) and other organisations in 1908. The new entity was itself called ‘Sinn Féin’.

The IRB was relatively inactive for the ten years or so after the ‘98 Centennial but with the prospect looming of a war in Europe which would involve Britain, began to see that as an opportunity for militant action which might present itself. Militant separatists now began to organise. In 1910 they published a newspaper, Irish Freedom, which was instrumental in attracting new recruits to the cause, including Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and Eamonn Ceannt, who would each play a central role in the 1916 Rising. After the suppression of the newspaper in 1914, the Irish Volunteer took its place, reflecting the formation of the Irish Volunteers in that year. The war in Europe was by then underway, and the experience gained from the anti-enlistment drive of the Boer War period was now put to good effect. The project from here on would be to recruit Irishmen to the ranks of Ireland’s army, not Britain’s – and Irishwomen too, not into the Irish Volunteers, but into their own women’s group, Cumann na mBan ( Irishwomen’s Council).

Cover, L'Irlande Libre, 1900

L’Irlande Libre

Irish women had, of course, played a significant role in raising awareness through the press and through protests and campaigns, stretching back to the 1890s, and beyond. Maud Gonne, who had played a very active role in fighting the practice of evictions of tenants in Ireland, had to leave Ireland for Paris to escape prosecution. While in Paris, she edited L’Irlande Libre, a radical separatist journal that was engaged in disseminating ideas, and which gave James Connolly one of his early opportunities to reach an audience. His article, Socialism and Irish Nationalism, published in 1897, laid out his socialist-republican thinking and its links with and inspiration from the revolutionary United Irishmen.

Shan Van Vocht front page

Shan Van Vocht

Another early separatist newspaper was the relatively small but highly influential Shan Van Vocht, published monthly in Belfast by Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston who wrote her poetry under the pen-name ‘Eithne Carberry’ and was herself the great-granddaughter of a United Irishman and the daughter of a Fenian. The Shan Van Vocht, besides publishing James Connolly, also provided an outlet for the thoughts of Douglas Hyde, founder and president of the Gaelic League, and of Arthur Griffith who later launched the newspaper the United Irishman after the closure of the Shan Van Vocht and whose subscription list he was given by Alice Milligan. In its content, the Shan Van Vocht contained about one third literature and leisure writing, about one third historical writing to do with 1798 and later agitation, plus articles on decolonisation, Irish music and language, and reports and a diary of political and historical meetings and events. The Shan Van Vocht played a major part in publicising the 1898 Centenary commemorations and in educating and informing its readers in the relevance of ’98 to contemporary conditions and radical political movements. Although little known, and often under-rated, it was, quite simply, a crucial organ of the radical press.

The United Irishman masthead March 4th 1899

The United Irishman

Although Arthur Griffith’s newspaper, the United Irishman, was a separatist newspaper, it was by no means a republican paper. Griffith’s preferred solution was quasi-independence using the  model of the ‘Hungarian solution’ which took the form of a dual or shared monarchy – in other words, the old order would just be modified, not transformed. Although he later flirted with membership of the Irish Volunteers in 1914, he did not support the use of physical force to achieve Irish independence, and his actions around the Treaty negotiations and the creation of a counter-revolutionary government in 1922 showed his true colours. His newspaper ran until 1906, when it was suppressed by the government, and he launched the newspaper Sinn Féin.

Of far more importance in the lead-up to the revolution were the Shan Van Vocht, and two newspapers which would be published between 1910 and 1916, Irish Freedom, and The Irish Volunteer.

Irish Freedom - masthead

Irish Freedom

The launch of Irish Freedom in November 1910 precipitated a shift in the controlling body of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Supreme Council. Older and more conservative men like Jack O’Hanlon, Fred Allen and P. T. Daly, who had previously exercised considerable power within the organisation, found themselves edged out in favour of more militant and younger men. The issue was over what the older men saw as the premature launch of the new paper, but also because of its promoters’ more extreme and open militancy. So the new paper almost immediately turned the IRB into a more militant organisation. It was controlled by Tom Clarke and Sean McDiarmada, both of them later signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, and had as its controlling editor Bulmer Hobson. Among its contributors were Patrick Pearse – another signatory of the Proclamation, John Devoy, Ernest Blythe, and Terence McSwiney whose death on hunger-strike in 1920 was instrumental in hastening the end of the War of Independence and the signing of a truce.

In its content the paper was working to the usual formula of inspirational stories based on history and patriots, an Irish language section, anti-British articles, and so on. Its first issue contained articles on ‘Sweating in Ireland’ (poor working conditions), a guide to Irish fiction, recollections of the dedication in 1898 of the Wolfe Tone foundation stone, a review of James Connolly’s ‘Labour in Irish History’, a piece on ‘The GAA – its Value as a National Asset’, and a report of the first meeting of the Students’ National Literary Society.

Progressively signs can be seen in its pages of a developing understanding of, and some sympathy with the labour movement. Writing in 1966, historian Pádraig O’Snódaigh had this to say: ‘Among the papers of the extra-Parliamentary nationalists (“the mosquito press” as they were called), the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) organ, Irish Freedom, had a markedly more pro-Labour attitude from its inception than had, for example, Sinn Fein. In August, 1911, Irish Freedom saw an evolutionary relationship between Labour and Republican ideas: “Mr. Carpenter is a Socialist, but Socialism leads to Republicanism and Republicanism leads to Separatism”.

Mr. Carpenter was a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland. The idea that socialism leads to republicanism which leads to separatism was one that Connolly had stated years beforehand. As time moved on towards the 1913 lock-out, and support for the labour leadership among the working class became apparent, the IRB took more notice. In January 1913 in Irish Freedom, Desmond Ryan made a plea for cooperation between the two movements ‘Both are fighting two distinct phases of one huge oppression and the work of one requires the attainment of what the other seeks’.

Six months earlier, in June of 1912, the paper had offered a welcome to the launch of the radical feminist newspaper, The Irish Citizen. It did refer to the differences between the women’s franchise position and that of the separatists, but as it said, ‘…we want to see every movement in Ireland, those we like and those we don’t like, Irish in their point of view and in everything. We don’t want any tails to English parties here, and that is why we welcome the The Irish Citizen’. It may also have had something to do with the fact that many supporters of the women’s franchise movement were also actively engaged in the nationalist movement, with many who were supporters of militant separatism, and that it was time to lower the tensions and to start building alliances.

1913 was an eventful year, not just because of the lock-out and all that went with it, but also because of the founding of the Irish Volunteers on the 25th of November in response to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers two months earlier whose aim was to oppose, through armed action if necessary, the introduction of Home Rule, and to preserve the Union with Britain. The Irish Volunteers launched their own paper in February 1914. It was as well they did, for within a few months Irish Freedom was suppressed by government order.

Irish Volunteer - front page Dec 5 1914

The Irish Volunteer

There was no doubt what message the new paper, The Irish Volunteer, was selling, or what its advertisers were selling either. In the issue dated July 4 1914 on page 11, there is an advertisement addressed to ‘Comrades!’, in which are offered: Mauser automatic pistols, sighted 1,000 yards, 4 pounds ten shillings; a .22 German target rifle at twenty-five shillings; or a Bull Dog revolver at seven shillings and six pence. Bandoliers, belts and haversacks are also on offer. The July 18th issue sees Hearne and Co. of Waterford selling approved uniforms at twenty-five shillings, and L Deegan of 3 Inn’s Quay offering .22 rifles priced from twelve shillings to four pounds three and six each. The issue of 1st August carries the news stories on ‘Rifles Landed at Howth’; ‘Savage Soldiery’; ‘Women and Children Bayoneted’; ‘Unloading the Rifles: an Eye Witness’s Story’.

Various topics were covered under military training in the pages of the paper: Explosives, care and use of weapons, drilling, first-aid, bilingual military vocabulary, defending positions etc. An advertisement in the January 16th 1915 issue invites customers to ‘Shooting at the City Rifle Range, Talbot Street – an ideal place to practice’. In all of the issues of the paper extensive coverage was given of the many activities of the Volunteers; drilling, manoeuvres, training sessions, inter-company competitions, and so on. It is obvious from looking at the paper that things were moving towards a climax of some sort.

From December 1914 to the last issue in April 1916, Eoin MacNeill, who would achieve lasting notoriety by attempting to stymie the 1916 Revolution by issuing an order countermanding the previous order to mobilise the Volunteers for military action, served as the titular editor of the paper. During this period, the IRB had infiltrated the Volunteers at officer rank and in staff headquarters. Although MacNeill had not been privy to the plans for the revolution, it is beyond belief that he, or for that matter the authorities in Dublin Castle did not know by reading the Irish Volunteer that some action was imminent. On page three of the  paper dated the 22nd April 1916 an item titled  ‘Equipment Week’ states that the Dublin Brigade Commandant is having a cheap sale this week, offering to match a shilling for every shilling spent, and, further –‘This Easter is for the Irish Volunteers. We should make it impressive. And it is not only Easter: it is the anniversary of Clontarf, April 23rd.’ ‘Clontarf, April 23rd’ refers to the decisive battle in 1014 between Brian Boru, self-proclaimed King of Munster and Leinster, and the Viking Dubliners and their Leinster allies. Although Brian Boru was killed in the battle, the victory by his forces effectively ended the Viking threat to the native aristocracy in Ireland. The article was signed by Thomas McDonagh, who would be another of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Two days later, on April 24th 1916, the revolution started.

The final part of this series will deal with the advanced-feminist movement and its publications.


A Most Seditious Lot: The Labour Press 1898-1916

Living today in an Ireland in which we do not have any significant alternative to a hegemonic right-wing press and broadcast media, it is difficult to imagine a time when there was a vibrant antidote to counteract the conservative propaganda of the national newspapers. But over a period from 1898 to 1916 and spanning a range of movements including advanced-nationalist, feminist, cooperative and socialist, their newspapers, journals, pamphlets and newsletters planted progressive ideas in the minds of their readers and often explicitly primed and prepared them for revolutionary action. It is worth understanding how this was achieved by looking at the content of these publications. In this article the Labour press will be examined, with the other movements to be examined in later articles.

Writing in 1937, Stephen Browne SJ said ‘…the history of the Irish Labour Press may be said to begin with the first appearance in 1898 of Connolly’s Workers Republic. Indeed, though the workers’ cause had been advocated in the past by such leaders as Fintan Lalor and Michael Davitt, the labour movement proper begins with James Connolly, who may fairly be described as the first Irish labour leader pure and simple.’ Browne was correct in that final point, but also in linking Connolly back through Michael Davitt to James Fintan Lalor, as Connolly himself frequently acknowledged. Browne might have completed the list of influences – from Lalor and his contemporaries, Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders, back again to the anti-sectarian United Irishmen of the 1790s. That list of influences explains the three main strands to Connolly’s ideology – nationalism, republicanism and socialism, to which he consciously added advanced-feminism. And it was his core socialist republicanism that defined his nationalist outlook, lifting it away from the inward-looking Catholic nationalism of many of his contemporaries and allowing him to develop and express his progressive internationalism. All of this he brought to the pages of his newspapers, his pamphlets and his public speaking, in the process educating and informing his audience.

But throughout his career it was always primarily the interests of his class – the working-class – that occupied his thoughts. Those who criticised his move (as they mistakenly saw it) towards militant separatism and the company of nationalists between 1914 and 1916 as a profound and regrettable change ignore his long-standing linkage of the unhappy plight of the working class in Ireland with British colonialism, and of workers internationally with the rapacious greed of capitalist imperialism. His appreciation of James Fintan Lalor’s position on the subject – that social questions and the national issue should be regarded as complimentary – is revealed in his writings from 1896 on, and shows that his later actions in forming a revolutionary coalition were inevitable. Prior to establishing his newspaper The Workers Republic in 1898, Connolly’s political stance was published in the pages of advanced-nationalist papers. From the earliest days he had established contact with militant nationalists, especially through his work on the preparations for the centenary of the United Irishmen’s 1798 revolution.

The first issue of The Workers Republic appeared on the 13th of August 1898, just two days before the massive gathering for the dedication of the foundation stone of the proposed Wolfe Tone monument. On page two, writing under one of his pen-names, Spailpín, Connolly tells his readers – ‘We are Republican because we are Socialists, and therefore enemies to all privileges; and because we would have the Irish people complete masters of their own destinies, nationally and internationally, fully competent to work out their own salvation.’

Page one included a trenchant criticism of Irishmen for fighting in the four corners of the world ‘under any flag, in anybody’s quarrel, in any cause except their own’. Page three carried an article on the long hours and low pay of the men who worked for the Dublin Tram Company – it would be 18 years before the owner of that company, William Martin Murphy, would get in his final retaliation in by leading the charge for Connolly’s execution. On page five, there is an attack on ‘Home Rule Journalists and Patriots’. In an article on page 6, signed Saoirse, Connolly advises Dublin Castle of the socialists’ intention to get rid of the capitalist system. There are several articles and references to Wolfe Tone throughout the paper, including on landlordism and revolution. The last of the eight pages is made up of a statement of the objects and aims of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP), and a series of advertisements for the party’s open air meetings ‘Every Sunday Evening, 7.30. Foster Place.’, for an appeal for funds for the ISRP, for Connolly’s seminal pamphlet ‘Erin’s Hope: the End and the Means’, and only one commercial advertisement – for ‘A Good Reliable Bicycle for the Cheapest Possible Price’ at M. J. Lord.

On page one of the following week’s issue, Connolly reports on a speech made by Lord Mayor Tallon at the ‘98 Commemoration banquet – ‘Poor Wolfe Tone. Lived, fought, and suffered for Ireland in order that a purse-proud, inflated wind-bag should exploit your memory to his own aggrandisement’. The story continues on page six – ‘I am told it passed over as well as such things usually do. A number of speeches were delivered by gentlemen who did not mean what they said. As far as I can learn they all got safely home. There is nothing more to relate concerning the dinner unless to remark that there were no working men there. It was a middle-class dinner, in a middle-class restaurant, for middle-class people’. Connolly was not inclined to take prisoners when reporting on the words or actions of the rich and powerful, and it is not hard to imagine the delight with which reports like this must have been received among the working-class readers. This was part of the style of the newspaper, the mixing of serious content with caustic and highly humorous and very subversive comment.

On September 3rd the paper carried a translated reprint from L’Irlande Libre titled Socialism and Irish Nationalism which ends with a clear enunciation of Connolly’s position on both the failings of the concept of bourgeois revolution, and the necessity of forging alliances with willing partners to create a sustainable revolution. The ending is also prophetic. “Having learned from history that all bourgeois movements end in compromise, that the bourgeois revolutionists of today become the conservatives of tomorrow, the Irish Socialists refuse to deny or to lose their identity with those who only half understand the problem of liberty. They seek only the alliance and the friendship of those hearts who, loving liberty for its own sake, are not afraid to follow its banner when it is uplifted by the hands of the working class who have most need of it. Their friends are those who would not hesitate to follow that standard of liberty, to consecrate their lives in its service even should it lead to the terrible arbitration of the sword.”

Two weeks later The Workers Republic carried the first installment of Labour in Irish History under another Connolly pen-name ‘Setanta’. The finished book would eventually to be published 12 years later, in 1910, on Connolly’s return from the USA. The paper was starting to receive more advertising now. On page eight a firm called Daly & Co. of Blackburn advertised two products, Daly’s Chimney Cleaner, and Daly’s Pile Salve – hopefully not with interchangeable lids! The following issue carried the first article in the paper by Maud Gonne which was on ‘Irishmen and the British Army’.

In October, the paper ceased production until its reappearance the following May. Finance was always a problem, and the paper several times went into hibernation if there was an election to be fought. In August 1899, the paper issued a four page ‘Wolfe Tone Supplement: the Social-Revolutionary’, which included ‘Industrial Progress and Revolution’ by Arthur O’Connor, ‘The Self-Catechism of a Rebel’ by John Mitchel and an article on ‘Fenianism and Continental Revolution’. In September, the paper announced a move to new larger premises at 138 Upper Abbey Street, ‘To include a shop, a clubroom, a large lecture hall, and two separate rooms for the printing outfit which now includes two printing presses’. Two weeks later the paper advertised the fact that lectures were now being held in the Workers Hall every Sunday, admission free.

From January 1901 the style of the paper changed. It was now more dense and carried reprints of previously published articles, as well as current reports. It was not as easy or as enjoyable a read. It reverted back to the original size and form in July 1902. A month later it carried the announcement of ‘Our American Mission’, that being Connolly’s planned trip to America to raise funds by way of a lecture tour. The funds he raised and sent back were dissipated by the time of his return. Connolly, with a family to feed, and no funds to keep the party or the presses going, went back to America where he remained until 1910.

When he eventually returned it was to more fertile territory than he had left due to James Larkin’s efforts over the preceding four years to organise workers into a trade union. With the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) in place, there was now a relatively solid base from which to work. In June 1911 The Irish Worker newspaper appeared, edited by Larkin with Connolly’s active participation, and it enjoyed very substantial sales from the start. In June 1911 its circulation was 26,000. By September it had reached a staggering 95,000 copies. Its circulation fluctuated but remained healthy. It was an important weapon in the hands of the labour movement before and during the lock-out of 1913, and crucial in the formation and instruction of the Irish Citizen Army. When Larkin left Ireland to raise funds in the USA in 1914 he left Connolly effectively in control of the ITGWU, and commanding the Irish Citizen Army

In 1915, the Irish Worker was suppressed by the government, and to fill the vacuum, Connolly re-launched The Workers Republic. His newspaper would play an important role in providing coverage of the Army’s activities, training articles etc., and also as a link with the activities of the Irish Volunteers. The first issue, on the 29 May 1915, carries the message, ‘The Army and Reserves will parade on Sunday at Liberty Hall to take part in the May Day procession to the Park. All ranks are called out for the muster. By Order.’. On page 8 the paper carried accounts of military happenings so as ‘to enlighten and instruct our members in the work they are banded together to perform’. In ‘Notes on the Front’, page one, July 3rd 1915, there is a review of “From a Hermitage”, a pamphlet by P. H. Pearse, including this comment ‘We find ourselves in agreement with most of the things he says…and are surprised to find him so wisely sympathetic on the struggles of the workers with which we are most closely identified.’

A week later, under the heading ‘Ourselves and Our “Allies”’, the paper offered ‘heartiest congratulations to the Larkfield Team of the Irish Volunteers who won the tournament at St. Enda’s Fete last Sunday’. The paper was by now providing extensive coverage of the Citizen Army, with training notes on a wide variety of military topics from issue to issue. A series of articles during 1915 drew on revolutionary tactics used in, for instance; Revolution in Belgium (12th June), Revolution in Paris 1830 (July 3rd), while an article on June 19th dealt with the story of the Alamo, which the revolutionary HQ – the GPO and surrounding streets – would emulate less than a year later.

The issue of 15 April 1916, nine days before the revolution would start, carried a poem by C. de. Markievicz :

‘The Call’
‘Do you hear the call in the whispering wind?
The call to our race today,
The call for self-sacrifice, courage and faith
The call that brooks no delay.’

On the same page is an announcement of  a ‘Solemn Hoisting of the Irish Flag at Liberty Hall on Sunday April 16′.

The last issue of the Workers Republic of the 22 April, two days before the Revolution, carried an image of a harp above and below the poem “Eire” by Maeve Cavanagh. The authorities in Dublin Castle would have been reassured, however, by the first lines of the cover article ‘Notes on the Front’‘As this is our Easter edition, and we do not feel like disturbing the harmony of this season of festivity…’. But this last issue of The Workers Republic also carried an editorial titled ‘Labour and Ireland’ in which Connolly described the hoisting of the new flag of the republic over Liberty Hall – “So closely had the crowds been packed that many thousands had been unable to see the ceremony on the square, but the eyes of all were now riveted upon the flag pole awaiting the re-appearance of the Colour Bearer. All Beresford Square was packed, Butt Bridge and Tara Street were as a sea of upturned faces. All the North Side of the Quays up to O’Connell Street was thronged, and O’Connell Bridge itself was impassable owing to the vast multitude of eager, sympathetic onlookers… At last the young Colour Bearer, radiant with excitement and glowing with colour in face and form, mounted beside the parapet of the roof, and with a quick graceful movement of her hand unloosed the lanyard, and


fluttered out upon the breeze.

Those who witnessed that scene will never forget it. Over the Square, across Butt Bridge, in all the adjoining streets, along the quays, amid the dense mass upon O’Connell Bridge, Westmoreland Street and D’Olier Street corners, everywhere the people burst out in one joyous delirious shout of welcome and triumph, hats and handkerchiefs fiercely waved, tears of emotion coursed freely down the cheeks of strong rough men, and women became hysterical with excitement… As the first burst of cheering subsided Commandant Connolly gave the command, “Battalion, Present Arms”, the bugles sounded the General Salute, and the concourse was caught up in a delirium of joy and passion.

In a few short words at the close Commandant Connolly pledged his hearers to give their lives if necessary to keep the Irish Flag Flying, and the ever memorable scene was ended.”

Two days later, Connolly would oversee the unfurling of that flag of the Irish Republic over the GPO as the revolution began.  Nineteen days later he was dead, a battle-wounded prisoner, already dying from gangrene, murdered by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol, and with his death the authentic voice of labour in Ireland was silenced.

We do not need armed revolution in Ireland today, but we certainly need a revolution in thought and spirit, a revolution that, as always, begins in the imagination. But where can we find that organ of the mass media that will present to the people of Ireland alternative ideas to consider, propose better solutions to problems and issues of national importance, show us the lessons of the past that can guide us towards more informed judgements and help us make better decisions? The answer is bleak. In the Ireland of the 21st century that organ of the mass media does not exist. But it cannot be beyond the means of today’s free citizens to create a modern version of The Workers’ Republic, Irish Freedom or The Irish Citizen, online. Here is a start – the masthead of the penultimate edition of James Connolly’s The Workers’ Republic.

The banner of The Workers' Republic of 15th April 1916

Interfering, Meddling People: Labour agitators and 1916

In 1891, in “The Soul of Man under Socialism”, Oscar Wilde had this to say – ‘What is said by great employers of labour against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.’ 

Between 1896 and 1916 two very effective agitators combined to ‘sow the seeds of discontent’ among the working class, not just in Dublin, but in urban areas throughout the country, and abroad. The first, James Connolly, arrived in Dublin in 1896 and, very shortly after, founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party. The other, Jim Larkin, arrived from Liverpool in 1907 as organiser for the National Union of Dock Labour, and the following year founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Both were the sons of Irish emigrants from the immediate post-famine period. Each of them had his own view as to how the working class could raise themselves up, both were strong willed, yet they were able to combine at critical moments when the opportunity presented itself to improve the position of the working-class. They were by no means the first agitators in the land. But they were undoubtedly among the most effective, and carried out their work during a critically important period in terms of potential for change.

On Connolly’s arrival in 1896, he immediately threw himself into the task of establishing his tiny party, relying on public open-air meetings, usually in Beresford Place, by pamphleteering, and later through the pages of his own newspaper The Workers Republic, and in various advanced-nationalist organs of the press. He involved himself in the preparations for the centenary commemorations of the 1798 Rising shortly after his arrival with the establishment of the ‘Rank and File ‘98 Club. He also involved himself in opposition to the Boer War, using the campaign to illustrate the nature of colonialism allied to capitalism. These activities brought him into contact with many of the leading political personalities of the day, but more importantly established his credentials with the social class whose cause he championed. While this did not bring electoral success for his party, it was to pay off later.

In 1903, disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of the ISRP and what he saw as the poor prospects of establishing a viable socialist base in Ireland, Connolly left for America where he continued his agitation on behalf of workers and eventually found employment organising on behalf of the International Workers of the World. He further established himself as a socialist intellectual of international stature during this seven-year exile. While Connolly was away, he still contributed to the debates of the day in Ireland through the medium of the press, and during this time continued to develop his political, social and economic arguments, culminating in the publication, following his return to Ireland, of his most important work – Labour in Irish History – in 1910.

By the time Connolly returned to Ireland, Jim Larkin had also established his position as a labour leader of considerable stature. The formation of the ITGWU had created a union which was free from cross-channel control. It developed a set of tools by which workers could pressurise the employers into negotiating better terms; lightening strikes, sympathetic strikes, ‘flying pickets’ and so on. In all this it helped to radicalise the working class and to create a sense of solidarity among them, which is not to deny that, given the economic conditions of the day, there was not a ready supply of ‘blacklegs’ or ‘scabs’ available to the employers in the attempt to break the effectiveness of the union. But this was a militant union, and its members were not afraid to stand their ground. With the union growing in strength, Connolly and Larkin also took a prominent role in the foundation of the Irish Labour Party in 1912.

Workers flocked to join the ITGWU. Between 1910, when Connolly and Larkin joined forces, and 1912, union membership grew from 4,000 to 10,000. Irish employers who had up to then dictated terms of employment with impunity recognised the threat to their power and profits and began to organise against trade unionism. In this, they had the backing of the Catholic church, all of the leading newspapers, and the British administration in Ireland, in other words, the political class. The conflict between the union and the employers increased, with conditions imposed on workers that they not join or that they renounce existing membership of the ITGWU. When tram workers employed by William Martin Murphy’s Dublin United Tramway Company walked off the job on the 26th of August 1913, during the highly popular Dublin Horse Show, 400 Dublin employers retaliated by locking out over 20,000 men and women workers, and so the Dublin lock-out began.

The lock-out, which was led on the employer’s side by William Martin Murphy, who besides being a wealthy industrialist was owner of the influential Irish Independent newspaper, saw acts of extreme brutality inflicted by the police on civilians. This resulted in the formation of the Irish Citizen Army by Larkin, Connolly and others, an idea brought back by Connolly from his time as an organiser with the IWW in the US where a Citizens’ Army was a necessary protection for striking workers who were regularly targeted for extreme violence, including murder, by gangs of thugs hired by employers. First conceived to provide protection to strikers, the Irish Citizens Army developed quickly into an armed and well drilled force, albeit small in numbers.

Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU, became the centre of activity for the striking workers and their families. As the Employers Federation tightened its grip on the city, blocking food supplies and other essentials of life from entering the city, soup kitchens were set up in Liberty Hall with Countess Markievicz, Helena Moloney and other radical women organising the distribution of limited amounts of food to the destitute workers’ families. Dr Kathleen Lynn set up first aid facilities in Liberty Hall to treat workers injured in action on the picket-line and also to alleviate sicknesses brought on through starvation, especially affecting children. Over the course of the lock-out a union official died in police custody following torture, two workers were killed on the streets by police, and another, a woman, was shot dead by a strike-breaker. Hundreds of strikers were injured, mainly in police baton charges. Lives were lost too in tenements in the poorest parts of Dublin as women and children in particular succumbed to starvation, disease and cold during that winter.

The lock-out petered to an inconclusive ending after seven months, with workers drifting back to work out of necessity and many Dublin businesses fatally wounded by the actions of their owners and forced to close. The ITGWU had though established the right of workers to organise in trade unions and the principle of workers’ solidarity as paramount in the struggle against oppression and exploitation. Liberty Hall had been established as an important centre of resistance and as an excellent training ground for another battle that would soon be fought. The workers involved in the lock-out had garnered support from a wide variety of sources – feminists, advanced nationalists, artists and intellectuals, and republicans. The Irish Citizen Army had been established as a military force with James Connolly in a pivotal position, and a group of men and women in leadership roles who would be of crucial importance later.

Connolly assumed command of the Citizen Army in 1914 following Larkin’s departure for America to raise funds, where he would remain until 1923 having spent a number of years in prison for criminal anarchy. Connolly was a multi-tasker. Apart from the Irish Citizen Army he was acting General Secretary of the ITGWU. He was a newspaper publisher and journalist, first under the banner of The Irish Worker and when that paper was suppressed reviving his own paper, The Workers Republic, in which he wrote most of the copy. He was a leader of the anti-conscription campaign in the lead-up and during the First World War. He was forging alliances with various elements working to create a revolution. He was developing a strategy and tactics for urban guerilla warfare that drew on research into other revolutionary events, and that would substantially form the basis for the military campaign during Easter Week 1916 and would serve as a model to be used during the War of Independence and in other revolutions in other parts of the world.

In January 1916, after a period in which Connolly had baited the Volunteer leadership on their timidity in not seizing the opportunity of British involvement in a major war to strike for Irish freedom, he disappeared for three days. His own people in Liberty Hall believed he had either been kidnapped by the Volunteers or lifted by the police and was being held in Dublin Castle. He was in fact mainly in Eamon Ceannt’s house with the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). While some speculate that this period was spent in attempting to dissuade Connolly from taking premature action with the Citizen Army, as he had indicated he would, it is more likely that the discussions focussed on what sort of republic would be the endgame of any revolutionary action. What we can safely assume, knowing Connolly’s character and his strong convictions, is that he emerged from this series of discussions fully committed to the alliance of the IRB, Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, with a date for action determined, and with the template for the new Irish Republic nailed down.

What republic did Connolly want? The Workers’ Republic. What did the Proclamation lay out as the model of republic? A socialist republic – with the potential for the citizens of a free Ireland to take that to the next level, the Workers’ Republic. Would Connolly have settled for less? No! Did the other leaders with whom he had spent three days walk away from the discussions? No! All seven signed their names to it, knowing that they would likely die for that action.

If a revolution can have a head office, then Liberty Hall was that – for socialists and republicans alike. When the flag of the Irish Republic was raised in Dublin for the first time it was over Liberty Hall, a week before it was raised over the GPO on the 24th of April 1916. It was in Liberty Hall that the Proclamation was printed, and it was from Liberty Hall that all orders went out immediately prior to the revolution, and from Liberty Hall that the GPO garrison marched to light the fire of revolution. The central importance of Liberty Hall to the Irish revolution – from the experience of the 1913 lock-out, to the pressure applied by Connolly and the Citizen Army for revolution, to the planning and the execution of the revolution, must be recognised. The fruit of all of that was to be the socialist Irish Republic, but it was the rotten fruit of counter-revolution that would ultimately be served up to the Irish people in 1922, a fruit that they are still forced to eat today.

An oft-repeated criticism of Connolly, principally by those who claim to be ‘pure’ socialists, is that he in some way let the socialist side down in 1916 by aligning himself and his army with nationalists. The lie is given to that in the text of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic for which the leadership and rank-and-file of the revolutionary force in 1916 were prepared to lay down their lives to achieve – a socialist republic. Paragraph four of the Proclamation could have been written by no-one other than James Connolly, and that is the key paragraph. And if he did align himself with nationalists, they were nationalists who were republican in their ideology. And what is a republican? According to Connolly himself, to be a republican is to be a socialist and to be a socialist is to be a republican. But perhaps not a ‘pure’ enough socialist for some, the measure of whose opinion should be their own achievements, or lack thereof.

Perhaps these egotistical ‘pure’ socialists would point to a single instance of a ‘pure’ revolution in history. They cannot, for none exist. Connolly himself had written in ‘Erin’s Hope’ as far back as 1897 – “we will, as the true revolutionist should ever do, have called into action on our side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent. By the use of the revolutionary ballot we will have made the very air of Ireland as laden with ‘treason’, as fully charged with the spirit of revolt, as it is to-day with the cant of compromise and the mortal sin of flunkeyism; and thus we will have laid a substantial groundwork for more effective action in the future…”.

“But he showed himself to be a nationalist”, the internationalists cry. The fools! Connolly, an internationalist to the core, pointed out that you cannot be one, the inter-nationalist, without being the other, the nationalist. Nationalism is neither an automatically good or bad thing. If the Nation – the collective of citizens – operates to a set of benign, progressive and non-insular ideas and values then it is obviously a good thing, and the values in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic have these good attributes. Connolly wished the Irish Republic would act as a ‘beacon of hope‘ to the oppressed people of the world, in other words that it would provide an example for them to emulate as they wished. What did Connolly have to say in Erin’s Hope 19 years before the revolution? “The interests of Labour all the world over are identical, it is true, but it is also true that each country had better work out its own salvation on the lines most congenial to its own people.” The ‘pure’ socialists on the other hand, adopt the position of the imperialist in seeking to impose a universal solution regardless of local cultural norms and nuances – another form of tyranny.

It is a pity that sectarian elements on the left would not study Connolly’s words and try to understand what the true revolutionist needs to do. And given that the parliamentary Irish Labour Party has aligned itself with the forces of the right it is even more of a pity that the rank-and-file members of the Irish Labour Party, in the centenary year of the party founded by Connolly and Larkin, would not familiarise themselves with those same words and understand where their rightful place should be – firmly on the left, not in the middle, and certainly not on the right.

What was it that Oscar Wilde wrote?

What is said by great employers of labour against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.’

True one hundred years ago, just as true today. Agitators are absolutely necessary!

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